US midterm elections: Experts call for vigilance against false information in Chinese social media

4 Min
US midterm elections: Experts call for vigilance against false information in Chinese social media

The midterm elections, which will shape the political direction of the United States over the next two years, will kick off in a month. As campaigns rage, some of the forces trying to sway voters’ intentions are also surging underneath, especially on social media.

The Associated Press obtained an unclassified intelligence report this week in which intelligence officials said China was trying to discredit candidates on social media that it considered a threat to Beijing’s interests. China may be seeking to influence specific campaigns to “thwart candidates deemed particularly hostile to Beijing,” the report said. The

U.S. midterm elections, which involve all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 seats in the Senate, will largely affect how much the Biden administration can accomplish its political goals over the next two years.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, released a report last week saying it had removed a group of cyber forces from China. From the fall of 2021 to September 2022, the group used American names to set up users while attacking candidates from both the Democratic and Republican parties in hopes of influencing how American voters perceive those candidates.

Experts told VOA that had previously focused on publicizing the Chinese Communist Party’s stance, with relatively few false propaganda campaigns trying to influence the outcome of the U.S. election.

“This is the first time Meta has discovered that Chinese cyber forces are trying to influence American citizens, people inside the United States, and that’s the biggest change,” Philip Napoli, a professor of public policy at Duke University and director of the Center for Media and Democracy, told VOA.

“Meta’s findings suggest that Beijing may have seen the benefits of manipulating political discourse on certain issues or candidates, although the effectiveness of these activities is limited at the moment,” Audrey Wong, an assistant professor in the Department of International Relations at the University of Southern California, told VOA.

Facebook deleted this group of accounts. The report, however, raises even greater doubts about the power from China that could interfere in the elections. As an American company, Facebook can remove threats when it finds them, so if the same thing happens to a Chinese-owned company like TikTok or WeChat, how can voters tell?

At the same time, more and more political missions began flocking to TikTok for campaigns in order to get closer to young voters. Over the past year, TikTok has become a major battleground in the campaign.

McGregor of the University of North Carolina says that if a platform is particularly popular among a particular group of people, then various entities, including companies and politicians, will come to the platform to spread their message. “From that perspective, it’s a good thing to have more people involved in politics,” she said.

However, Herman of the Hudson Institute believes that using TIkTok to promote political ideas will further make the platform part of the U.S. political dialogue. “This will inevitably lead TikTok, a Chinese-funded company, to steer the political debate to the pro-China side under the guise of a neutral social media platform,” he said in an email to VOA.

Patrick Chester, a researcher at the China Data Lab at the University of California, San Diego, noted that research on TikTok’s sister company Douyin shows that Douyin pushes content posted by the Chinese government on its platform, or vigorously pushes pro-government remarks.

“In contrast, TikTok’s audience is an international crowd, so the platform does not directly push the Chinese government’s account, but because of ownership issues, voters should be wary of the information on TikTok,” he told VOA by phone.

In addition to TikTok, another notable platform is WeChat. Tencent’s super app integrates social, SMS, news, payment, shopping, food and car calling, and WeChat has become part of Chinese lifestyle in China.

WeChat’s penetration in the United States is far less than that of TikTok. However, many of the first or second generation of Chinese in the United States use WeChat to contact and obtain information from relatives and friends in China.

According to a 2020 analysis by the non-profit Human Rights Watch, there are about 100 million to 200 million WeChat users overseas, and the United States has an average of 19 million daily active users. The article pointed out that WeChat is a conduit for many overseas Chinese to obtain information, which “includes information about the place of residence.” At the same time, many popular overseas Chinese publications also use WeChat push.

“In this sense, news written by a local Chinese-language media in New York must pass censorship in Beijing before it can be transmitted to the Chinese community in New York,” Human Rights Watch said.

Cui Peng, a researcher at the University of California, explained that the news on WeChat is highly filtered. WeChat’s media platform is not allowed to exist that cannot be approved by the Chinese government, so the media public account represents only a small part of the media community.

“There are state-run media on it, or public accounts that the government has approved, or at least not opposed.” So I think we can say with certainty that it’s hard to see information on WeChat that the Chinese government doesn’t want people to see,” he said.

UC professor Huang Yunqi told VOA that false political information could spread rapidly on WeChat public accounts or private groups because, like other social media platforms, it needs to generate revenue and clicks, and it is more difficult to fact-check or obtain other sources of information.

“Our research shows that the Chinese government’s propaganda on WeChat is more likely to amplify anti-Asian racism and violence that can adversely affect Chinese-speaking Americans for their participation in local and national politics,” she told VOA via email.

What should the American public do as voters? Cui Peng of the University of California said it was unrealistic to pin all of his factual hopes on social media platforms. In this complex information environment, voters should be more vigilant about information available on social media.

“I think a lot of voters get the information on social media from their friends, colleagues or social circles who don’t realize the big data algorithms underneath that information, which are often opaque. As a result, people receive a carefully crafted worldview that does not necessarily reflect what most people think of as the true embodiment of external information. He said.

“So, if social media is how you primarily suck up information, you should go to a reliable news organization to verify that the information you get is complete and not misleading.” Cui Peng said.

—- VOA report